Authors: Georgia Bockoven
This one’s for John—my husband, my best friend.
Elizabeth stepped deeper into the late evening shadows of an eighty-foot-tall heritage oak, the advertising symbol for a cemetery nearly as old as the tree itself. Here was where the elite, the historic, the movers and shakers of Sacramento, California, were buried. With park-like grounds, stately mausoleums, and subdued but elegantly expensive granite headstones, it was plain that those without significant means need not apply to have a loved one buried in such august company. The rules governing the who and how were strict and inflexible, if not always openly admitted. At one time Elizabeth would have obeyed these rules unquestioningly; she was not the same woman she’d been a decade ago.
She’d come early for this final farewell, wanting to be alone with her thoughts before the others arrived. Memories were a poor substitute for what had been a deep and ever-expanding friendship, but they were all she had left. How long would it be before she stopped automatically reaching for the phone to call and share something she knew would make them both laugh, or maybe even make them feel a little wistful? When would the shards of loss develop rounded edges?
A flickering movement near an azalea caught her eye. It was one of the orange-and-black monarch butterflies that drifted through the valley each year on their way to winter over in a eucalyptus grove on the coast. There they would rest and sleep and mate and four months later take off again to begin an eighteen-hundred-mile migration, returning, four generations later, to the same grove to begin the cycle anew.
Elizabeth had read that, in theory, a time traveler could change the future by accidentally altering the path of a single butterfly. Was that what had happened to them? Was that how . . .
. . . the fabric of their lives had come apart eleven years ago and then been resewn in a pattern none of them would have recognized just a season before?
Time travelers and butterflies were ideas Elizabeth would have laughed at once. Now she wasn’t so sure. Something, be it butterflies or destiny or simple inevitability, had led to the year everything changed. It was also how she had wound up in the middle of a cemetery where she was about to do something that could land her in jail.
Lucy Hargreaves stood in the doorway of the cherry wood–paneled study and stared at the only man she’d ever truly loved. For twenty years she’d gone to bed alone, questioning her decision not to tell him, and awakened the next morning knowing her silence was the only way to keep him in her life. Where women were concerned—and there had been more than she cared to think about—there was no middle ground with Jessie Reed; it was sex or friendship.
The sex would have been good. Better than good—the kind she’d dreamed about when she was a young girl and then tried to forget when reality turned out to be more Marvel Comics than Shakespeare sonnet.
The day Jessie Reed walked into her law office she was thirty-nine and looking for a way to forget she was about to turn forty. He was new to Sacramento, fresh from his second divorce, and the only things separating him from the homeless men who drifted through the Greyhound bus depot she passed on her way to work every morning were his intelligence and a single-minded drive to rebuild his fortune. He did so with a cunning and fearlessness that bordered on fanaticism, treating free time as an enemy, recreation as a mortal sin.
Now, with his head propped against the wing of the leather chair, his thick silver hair long over his ears, his eyes shuttered and unresponsive, he looked vulnerable—a word as alien in any description of Jessie Reed as indecisive.
He opened his eyes and, without blinking, looked directly into Lucy’s. “You’re late,” he said, a note of irritation accentuating his soft Oklahoma drawl.
“The meeting ran longer than I expected.”
He straightened, ran a hand through his flattened hair, and motioned impatiently for her to join him. “So, what did you find out?” he asked.
She’d never lied to him. Not even in the small social ways friends used to dance around the truth. But this was different. He’d never asked her to be a party to something she was convinced was this misguided. He could have months more to live, even a year if he defied the odds with cancer the way he’d defied the odds with every other aspect of his life. But it still wouldn’t be enough time to do what he wanted. Not nearly enough.
“Nothing yet,” she finally said. If not an out-and-out lie, it was certainly its kissing cousin.
“This is takin’ too long. Hire another investigator.” He shifted in the chair. “Hell, there are people who advertise on talk shows that they guarantee they can find anyone in a week.”
“When did you start watching talk shows?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I know it’s not the point, but I still want to know why you’re wasting your time watching—” Could she have asked a more stupid question? Neither of them had anticipated how quickly or seamlessly he could divest himself of his various businesses or how empty his life would become without their distractions.
Three and a half months ago, on Thanksgiving day, Jessie had gone into the hospital to die, wryly disappointed that he would not see a new century arrive with all its wild predictions of computer crashes and meltdowns. He left a week later, his cancer seemingly in remission, something no one had thought possible. Grimly accepting that he would not die the quick death his doctors had predicted, he appeared at her office two days later and handed her a copy of the will that he’d had drawn up by another attorney. When he’d first told her that he’d gone somewhere else she had been confused and hurt, but careful not to let either reaction show.
Going through the papers, she’d skimmed the details. Convinced she’d gotten it wrong, she’d gone back to read more carefully. Finished, she sat back in her chair and stared at the man she’d thought she knew, too stunned at the revelations to say anything for a long, long time.
“Talk shows are like doing research,” Jessie said. “I’ve discovered there’s a whole world out there I knew nothing about. It’s time I learned. I think I’ve even figured out the appeal. It’s like watchin’ people who’ve been in a train wreck jump out the windows so they can steal what fell on the track. You can’t believe what you’re seein’, and you feel guilty because you’re lookin’, but you can’t close your eyes or turn away.”
“So I’ve heard. I just never thought I’d be hearing it from you.”
“Don’t judge me too harshly, Lucy,” he said, giving her a chastising smile. “It stops me from thinking too much. Gives me something to do.”
“You mean something other than what I’ve already suggested?”
He eyed her, curious, then said, “I don’t remember what you suggested.”
Her heart broke a little at the admission. Jessie was sixty-four when they met but could have passed for midforties, his mind quicker and sharper than anyone she’d known before or since. He was tall and lean and had the look of a man who’d made his living on horseback. When he smiled, it started with a slow tug on the left side of his mouth, and when he was particularly caught up in the moment the smile would end with a wink. He’d had her five minutes into their first conversation. From that day she had measured every man she met by a new standard.
“Visit the charities you named in your will,” she gently reminded him. “Give them a chance to thank you in person.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because it will make them feel good.”
“Not as good as the check will.”
“That’s not the point. Let me arrange one meeting. If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to—”
Jessie leaned forward, placing his hand against his side as if he could hold in the pain. “No.”
“All right. What about a trip? Nothing long or strenuous, just a day or two.” She stopped to think. “The Golden Gate Bridge wrapped in fog . . . Lake Tahoe . . . wine country. My brother still works for Opus. I could arrange a private tour.”
Jessie smiled wryly. “Did you ever play that game where you were supposed to say what you would do if you knew you only had a month to live?” He wiped his hand across his face, stopping to rest his elbow on the chair arm and prop his chin on his fist. “The answers come so easy when it doesn’t matter. Now everything just seems a waste of time. All my life I traveled for the experience and the memories. What good are either now?”
“I could take some time off.” The small catch in her voice kept it from sounding as casual as she’d intended. “We could go together.” His gaze pierced her shell.
“Don’t go getting all maudlin on me, Lucy. I’ve led a good life, lived it on my terms for the most part, and had a lot longer to do it than most. I’m not complaining, just looking for a good exit line.”
“How can I help?”
“You’re doin’ it. I just need you to do it a little faster.”
“Is there no way I can talk you out of this?” She understood his need to try to set things right with his daughters before he died, daughters Lucy hadn’t known existed three months ago. What she couldn’t make him understand was that it wasn’t possible. He needed forgiveness; they needed answers and a target for a lifetime of pain. She was the child of divorce and emotional abandonment; she understood what Jessie’s daughters had gone through, what they were still going through. In their anger they would break his heart and consider it their right. If Jessie had another twenty years it still might not be enough time.
“There’s nothing you can say that could get me to change my mind,” he said softly. “I know you believe I’m doing this because somewhere in the back of my mind I think they’re going to come runnin’ into my arms callin’ me Daddy, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m doing it because I can’t face dying without trying one last time to tell them I’m not the total son of a bitch they have every right to believe I am. I might have walked away, but I never forgot them.”
He braced his hands against the chair arms and pushed himself into a standing position. It wasn’t that the cancer had made him appear his true age as much as it provided benchmarks for his disintegration. “When I decided to do this, I told myself it was for them, to give them what little peace of mind I could while I still could and damn the consequences to myself. I wish that were true, Lucy. With everything I have I wish I were that selfless.” Unflinchingly, his gaze met hers. “I’m doing this for me. It’s the only way
can have any peace.”
He went to the desk, opened a drawer, and took out a sheet of paper. “I found the address I had for Elizabeth when I tried to get in touch with her a few years back.”
Lucy took the paper. Fifteen years ago Jessie found his oldest daughter living in Fresno and called her. She’d refused to have anything to do with him. She told him she would get a restraining order if he ever tried to see her. His letters were returned unopened. After a year he stopped trying.
When they’d gone over the information the detective would need to find Jessie’s four daughters, Lucy asked if Elizabeth was the only one he’d ever tried to contact. She simply couldn’t believe the man she knew would abandon his children the way her father had abandoned her. Jessie had hesitated before answering, plainly upset by the question. She’d let it go then. Now she decided to try again. “You never tried to find anyone but Elizabeth?”
He looked away from her, his gaze fixing on the bookshelves behind his desk, shelves that held the treasures and trash gathered during a lifetime of incredible wealth and abject poverty. There were first editions of Hemingway and Twain, arrowheads he’d found on his family farm in Oklahoma, a spent bullet discovered in a plowed field in Gettysburg.
One shelf stood out from the rest, the one he stared at now. Centered, propped on a wooden stand, was a small, hinged box. Inside was a Purple Heart medal attached to a tattered and faded purple-and-white ribbon, the bronze relief worn nearly featureless. Years ago Lucy had started to ask about the medal when the look in Jessie’s eyes stopped her. She’d never tried again.
“A while back I heard through an old business partner in Mexico that Christina was back in the States going to college in Arizona,” Jessie said. “After what happened with Elizabeth, I was—” He faltered. “Let’s just say I was hesitant to contact her outright, so I went to Tucson to see a play she was in.”
“And?” Lucy prompted.
“I didn’t recognize her. I had to look at the program to figure out who she was. She was three or maybe four years old the last time I saw her. How foolish I was, going there thinking I’d find the little girl I remembered. And how was she supposed to know me?” He shrugged, physically reinforcing his decision. “Still . . . I tried. Stupid thing to do, but I stayed around for that thing they have afterwards where the audience can talk to the actors. I watched her for a long time before I finally came up with something to say that wouldn’t scare the bejesus out of her. I asked her if she had inherited her talent, and she answered without a hint of question or curiosity about who I might be. I tried to come up with a reason to tell her who I was. . . .” He let out a deep sigh, then finished with a sad smile.
“And the other two? Ginger and Rachel?”
“I never tried to find them. Well, not beyond a time or two when they were kids. Considering the circumstances, I knew there was no way they would want to see me once they were grown.” When she didn’t comment, he added, “Say what’s on your mind, Lucy.”
After twenty years, she finally understood Jessie’s single-minded, consuming need to build his empire. It had nothing to do with money or success. He’d filled his days to escape the ghosts and guilt that consumed him now. “There’s no way I can talk you out of this?”
He shook his head. “This is something I have to do.”
Resigned, she said, “Then I’ll see what I can do to light a fire under the detective.”
“Double his fee.”
“I don’t think—”
, Lucy.” Modifying his tone, he added, “I believe in new beginnings, Lucy. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.” He gave her a smile followed by a wink. “This time circumstance is even on my side. Something special should mark the beginning of a new century, don’t you think? Something memorable. There has to be a reason I got to stick around to see it.”